A beating heart patch made of a patient’s own skin cells could be the next frontier in heart failure medicine, according to new research.
Scientists in the U.K. stitched small 2-cm-by-3-cm stem cell patches to the hearts of rabbits in a recent study published in the British Medical Journal. Blood vessels grew onto the patches, which appeared to become beating, functioning muscles of the heart.
Researchers are expected to move on to human trials within the next two years, for what lead scientist Sian Harding said is the only “curative” solution to heart failure currently in the works. If successful, the results could affect hundreds of thousands of people whose hearts have been weakened by heart attacks and other conditions. There is currently no cure for heart failure, a condition that about 600,000 Canadians live with, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
The human heart loses roughly one billion cells in an average heart attack, said Harding.
“The heart really can’t keep up with that kind of loss,” she said on CTV News Channel on Tuesday, adding that heart muscles regenerate slowly, at about 1 per cent per year. Harding and her team hope that the patch could “reverse” that damage. They see promise in the evidence from the animal trials, which showed that the patch integrates smoothly with the organ and secretes beneficial chemicals for the regeneration and repair of existing cells.
“There are many ways to help the symptoms of heart failure, but nothing really that’s giving back that damage to the heart,” said Harding, a professor of cardiac pharmacology at Imperial College London. “That’s what we’re trying to do with these cells.”
To create the “patch,” they took ordinary cells from the host rabbit and “reprogrammed” them into stem cells. Then they converted them into cardiomyocytes, or cardiac muscle cells, which Harding said form “the really strong beating muscle of the heart.”
“We can take the stem cells from the patient, give them back cardiac muscle that’s made out of their skin cells,” she said. Because the subject’s own cells are used, there is less risk that the body will reject the patch, she added.
There are still questions to be answered, including whether the patches will be safe in humans and if the treatment would be something catered to individual patients or if there could be an “off-the-shelf” option using universal donors.